Music therapy in dementia patients can help calm the mind

When Oria Perez wants to hear memories from her elderly mother’s life in Cuba and Washington, D.C., the two Key Biscayne women start singing together.

At 100, Oria Albarran has lost many of her memories, but they find a way back into her head whenever she hears the music she used to listen and sing to in her youth.

“When she is just telling us stories she tends to have a hard time remembering the details,” said Perez about her mother, who turned 100 on April 20.

“But if she is singing an old song she remembers the lyrics easily.”

Music is often used as therapy for elderly people experiencing memory lost or emotional changes, like people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Music can spark compelling outcomes in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Because rhythmic responses are influenced by a part of the brain that responds directly to auditory cues and requires little cognitive functioning, music has the power to stimulate positive interactions and manage mood changes.

There are two purposes for music therapy for the elderly: to make them feel engaged through something that is well engraved in their minds, and to help them calm down, said Dr. Daniel Varon, a specialist in geriatric psychiatry and neurology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.

“When patients advance in the disease [Alzheimer’s] they tend to go back to their adult time, like their 30s and 40s,” Varon said. “When they listen to the music they used to enjoy back in those days, they feel engaged and want to interact.”

But the music should relate to the patient’s background, and make them feel comfortable.

“The cultural background and ethnicity is really important when considering music therapy,” Varon said. “If you are of Latin American origin, maybe you can play rhythms like salsa or bolero, for example, which remind the patients of when their life was more active and fun.”

For patients who are experiencing behavioral changes, therapists use music to help them calm down.

“At a certain time during the day some patients become aggressive or uncomfortable,” Varon said. “In those instances music can … help them feel at ease.”

Rebecca Gibbons, a harpist who used to play her instrument for hospice care patients, said she has noticed how her music had a soothing effect on the patients.

“Scientific studies have shown that music can lower your heart rates and reduce stress,” said Gibbons, who has a one-year certificate in music of healing and transition, and plays her harp at Holy Cross Hospital three times a week. “When playing live, the musician can observe patients’ reactions and adjust the music to their mood.”

According to Varon, there is a lot of debate on how to treat behavioral problems in patients with dementia; music therapy is one of the non-pharmacological treatments used to try to control behavioral issues. Different studies, too, have had varying results on the effectiveness of music therapy for memory issues.

“There is also a lot of debate on the effect of the use of music as therapy,” Varon said.

But Gibbons has faith in music as a healer for elderly patients.

“Music therapy is a college level degree. Many therapists go on to play at retirement facilities and it seems to be quiet effective,” said Gibbons, who plays her cello in the hallways and waiting rooms of Holy Cross as part of the hospital’s Sounds of Healing program.

“It is very gratifying to see how music can touch people and, hopefully, make them feel better.”

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